Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stage Fright: BLACK SWAN

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has the kind of opening scene that gives a good idea of the film to follow. It starts with a spotlight slicing through inky black surroundings. In the center a ballerina is perfectly poised with elegant movements. The music of Tchaikovsky begins to boom. The ballerina spins. As the camera draws closer, we can hear the ragged, athletic breaths of the dancer. This is all set to be a film that will scrape away the surface glamour of the ballet, but then a darkly monstrous figure begins to dance with her. Then, Nina (Natalie Portman) wakes up, the opening scene fading like a dream. The film’s truest intentions burst forth. This is a film that will clamber around inside her head, bumping into all kinds of unsettling, destabilizing elements that are eating away at her psyche.

She’s a hardworking perfectionist ballerina in a well-established ballet company and has just been given the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake. It’s a high-pressure moment for her, the wrong time altogether to lose her mind. (Though when would be a good time?) The people that circle around her life are all menacing figures. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a controlling, domineering force of emotional manipulation. Her ballet director (Vincent Cassel) is a sleazy, molesting presence of abusive power. An older ballerina forced to retire (Winona Ryder) scowls drunkenly from the sidelines while a young ambitious ballerina (Mila Kunis) seems all too ready to worm her way into the lead role.

This is a terrifying collection of characters made all the more unsettling because of the unreliable narrator Nina proves to be. Are all of these characters as dangerous as they appear to be? It’s possible. Nina thinks that is the case. Could it instead be the case that a rattled mind of a naïve perfectionist has developed a harmful persecution complex that causes her to lash out irrationally? It’s possible. At first glance, the characters can seem one-dimensional, shrill and without nuance, but in the growing craziness of Nina’s mental state, who can say with absolute certainty how trustworthy these portrayals are? The performers involved give wonderful intensity to their roles, but also show glimmers of other possible readings. What to make, for instance, of a particularly devastating shot-reverse-shot at the film’s climax that shows Nina’s mother sitting teary-eyed in the audience? What is she thinking? I, for one, take this small moment, rich with overwhelming emotion, as the most indelible moment with which to contemplate just how dependable the film’s characterization really is. I haven’t yet made up my mind.

Aronofsky accentuates Nina’s growing madness with small touches of unnerving hallucinations that flicker to life in unexpected moments, sometimes bold and obvious, other times lingering in the shadows of peripheral vision. Doppelgangers flit through Nina’s field of vision. Danger seems to sit in wait around every corner. Leering strangers and intimidating pretenders alike gaze at her with creepy, unknowable intent. All the while, Clint Mansell’s kaleidoscopic Tchaikovsky-infused score swirls around, the frames are filled with mirrors, and the dark, evocative grains of the varied film stocks seem to reflect the increasingly cloudy thinking of our protagonist.

Fits of body horror both real and imagined grow in frequency. Nina scratches at rashes. She obsessively pushes her body to its limits, practicing a routine just once more and then again, and again, and again. She doesn’t just want to be perfect; she needs to be perfect. One particularly agonizing moment finds Nina picking away at a hangnail until her cuticle is covered in blood. She claws and claws until finally, terrifyingly, a thin ribbon of skin pulls up and away down the length of her finger.

Nina’s drive and madness congeal in a film that’s so confidently told with its declaratory sensationalism that it just barely covers up its messy, lurid, clammy, calculated insanity. I mean that as a compliment. This is a movie that grows progressively over the top in beautifully horrifying ways. Imagine the brutal, grueling realism of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler mixed with a bit of Cronenberg. This is a film of pounding sensations, a film of color and music and frenzied outbursts of sex and violence. It’s an intense experience, a horror film with a florid luridness and confident craziness.

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